Two earthquakes topped 6 on the Richter Scale on Thursday. The stronger was under the Pacific Ocean floor, 50 miles west and south of the Mexican coast. No one felt it.
The weaker was below south-central Indian cotton and sugar cane fields. It was the worst catastrophe from an earthquake since the Iran quake of June 1990. It had the greatest death toll in historic India since the Quetta quake in what is now Pakistan in 1935, possibly the most awful ever within the current borders of India.
Shifting tectonic plates cause the earth to shake. But humanity through its works makes the catastrophe. India is a mixture of developed and Third World. This mix caused the toll in lives to be so high, and also to be so swiftly counted.
Thanks to hostility with Pakistan, India has large and modern armed forces. They provide effective disaster relief, making for speedy help to survivors. It was this efficiency of operations that let the identified death toll pass 20,000 only one day after the first shock, despite the inaccessibility of destroyed villages because of roads previously made impassable by monsoon rains.
It was the time of the shock, before dawn, that was so deadly. In midmorning, when villagers are in the fields, most would have escaped. Instead, they were killed by falling roofs. Those who slept under the stars survived. Eastern Maharashtra is prosperous farmland. The houses may not have foundations but do have stone walls and iron or concrete roofs. When the ground shook, these proved to be death traps. In most of rural India, which is poorer, the less substantial mud huts and thatch roofs would not have been so fatal.
Mass cremation is the Indian tactic to prevent epidemic now. But there is a firewood shortage, and many bodies cannot soon be pulled from the rubble. Clean water, medicine, food and tents must be distributed by helicopter where the roads are washed out. Nations of the world should offer India help, and have been quick to do so.
But to honor the victims, something should be learned from this, primarily by the vernacular architects of India and other poor countries. It is not just Japan and California with their high-tech engineering that have to build earthquake precautions into the infrastructure. India must do the same.
As world population grows, so does the risk from earthquake, even as science and prediction improve. The worst earthquake catastrophe in recorded history hit Shaanxi, China, in 1556, killing an estimated 830,000 people, a tribute to the development of the Chinese people. Nowhere else could an earthquake have been so deadly in the 16th century. The potential now is greater.